The first thing that caught my attention about Frant Gwo’s prequel to ‘The Wandering Earth’, which was a gargantuan box-office hit in China four years ago is the runtime. The movie runs around 50 minutes longer than the first movie. A whopping 173 minutes, to be exact, which was unusually long for a mainstream Chinese blockbuster and more so for a movie targeted for the Chinese New Year season. Of course, this isn’t the first time Wu Jing – the star who also famously invested 60 million RMB from his own money into the 2019 film due to the overbudgeting issue at the time — appeared in a nearly 3-hour movie, given his prior experience in 2021 war film, ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’.
A quick recap of the first film to refresh your memory: In ‘The Wandering Earth’, we learn that the sun is dying out in the near future and the United Earth Government (UEG) come up with an ambitious plan to save the Earth by propelling the home planet out of its orbit using 10,000 mammoth fusion-powered rocket thrusters.
The prequel, in the meantime, focuses on the events prior to the first film as we see a team of scientists and astronauts including (a younger) Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) team up in a race-against-time scenario to initiate the controversial ‘The Moving Mountain Project’ (before it was later known as ‘The Wandering Earth Project’) to not only overcoming the rapidly-degenerating sun but also the moon that is about to cross the Roche limit.
The latter causes the gravitational pull threatens to crash into Earth and destroy mankind. If the moon-level threat sounds familiar, that’s because we already had Roland Emmerich tried and failed miserably in the ridiculously far-fetched and dumb-as-a-rock ‘Moonfall’ last year. Thankfully, the prequel doesn’t suffer the same fate as Roland Emmerich’s film did.
Sure, both ‘The Wandering Earth’ and ‘The Wandering Earth II’ may have been wearing their fair share of implausibility like a badge of honor. But at least these two movies remain watchable, thanks to Frant Gwo’s competent mix of character-driven human drama and large-scale special effects showcase amidst their scientific mumbo-jumbo.
Except for this time, the prequel pushes more on the dramatic melancholy as Frant Gwo, who again co-wrote the screenplay alongside Gong Ge’er as well as Yang Zhixue and Ye Ruchang delves into the personal stories related to Wu Jing’s Liu Peiqiang and Andy Lau’s Tu Hengyu. For the former, we see how Liu Peiqiang get to know his future astronaut-wife, Han Duoduo (Wang Zhi) in a meet-cute moment to their married life and Han Duoduo’s subsequent (Type II Radiation Sickness) illness.
Meanwhile, Andy Lau’s Tu Hengyu is a scientist whose wife (Tong Liya) died in a car accident but manages to save their dying little daughter, Yaya (Wang Ruoxi) by preserving her consciousness into a memory card of sorts and communicates with her using a supercomputer-like A.I. machine. Both respective stories may contain a somber tone that deals with mortality, grief, and loss but ‘The Wandering Earth II’ doesn’t feel too depressing to the point the movie overwhelms or loses the primary narrative sight of its saving-the-world angle.
This, in turn, made the nearly 3-hour length reasonably pacy to keep us occupied as ‘The Wandering Earth’ finds the right balance between the sentiment and spectacle. Speaking of spectacle, it helps that Frant Gwo is granted a bigger budget this time around from the first film’s 350 million RMB to over 600 million RMB. The special effects are significantly improved, allowing Gwo to fully realize his grand vision on an epic scale possible.
This can be seen in the elaborate opening sequence itself – the mass-drone attack on the 90,000 km space elevator, showcasing Gwo’s technical know-how and visual flair in staging action set pieces between the ‘Independence Day’-like aerial battle and Liu Peiqiang and Han Duoduo encountering the terrorists in the space elevator. The camera work is just as lively and fluid while A Kun’s pulsating score enlivens the overall set pieces with thrilling effects.
As much as I admired Gwo’s sheer ambition both narratively and visually speaking, the climactic third act revolved around humanity’s joint effort to prevent the moon from crashing the Earth tends to overstretch its melodramatic nature of the obligatory patriotism typically synonymous with Chinese movie blockbusters. It sure drags the scene longer than it should, which could have benefitted from a tighter edit.
Still, even with some of its shortcomings, ‘The Wandering Earth II’ remains an improvement over the 2019 original. A cinematic achievement that is best experienced on the biggest screen possible, even if ‘The Wandering Earth II’ borrows visual and narrative references from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to the aforementioned ‘Independence Day’, ‘Interstellar’ and even ‘Blade Runner 2049’, Frant Gwo deserves praise for taking the movie to the next level while continued to prove he has what it takes to make a hugely entertaining and emotional sci-fi disaster-action drama.